What are the rights of a biological father if, after birth of his child, the mother has signed an acknowledgment of parentage with another man? Michigan's court of appeals has answered this question after two trips to the court of appeals. These seem to be the facts of the case before the COA in Sinicropi v Mazurek, [Docket No. 281726 decided July 1, 2008] for publication:
1999: Woman meets Man. They have a relationship. They split. She has a relationship with Man No. 2. They split, and she goes back to Man No. 1. She has a baby and they sign an acknowledgment of parentage making Man No. 1 the baby's "legal dad."
2001. Woman and Man No. 1 split again. Man No. 1 files a custody action and Woman and Man No. 1 consent to an order of joint legal and joint physical custody.
2004. Woman moves to another city. Man No. 1 sues for custody and gets full custody. Woman doesn't like this. Hmmm. Perhaps he's not the "real" Dad. So Man No. 2, woman and child all take DNA tests. Voila! Man No. 2 is the biological father. That must mean Mom wins -- that she can get rid of Man No. 1 (now Legal Dad), because she and Biological Dad can get the court to revoke the acknowledgment of parentage in order to cut Man No. 1 (Legal Dad) out of the picture! The child is now 5 years of age and the only "father" he has ever known is the Legal Dad.
Will Mother's plan work? Remember that the facts of each family law case are unique. Thus we are not surprised when the answer, according to Michigan's Court of Appeals is: "It depends."
"If the relationship of father to son could really be reduced to biology, the whole earth would blaze with the glory of fathers and sons."
James Baldwin (1924–1987), U.S. author. “The Devil Finds Work,” sct. 1, The Price of the Ticket (first publ. 1976, 1985).
I. Sinicropi v Mazurek:
Holly Mazurek and the biological father of her child, Gregory Sinicropi appealed the trial court's decision not to allow a revocation of the acknowledgment of parentage signed by Mazurek and Martin Powers shortly after the birth of her child. DNA testing had subsequently proved that Sinicropi is the biological father.
This case was previously before the COA. In 2006 the COA remanded to the trial court with instructions to determine whether clear and convincing evidence supported the revocation of an acknowledgment of parentage, considering "the equities of the case.” The trial court then conducted an evidentiary hearing and refused to revoke the acknowledgment of parentage. The COA affirmed.
II. Underlying Facts and Proceedings
Mazurek dated and broke up with Powers, briefly dated Sinicropi, then got back together with Powers. Mazurek gave birth to a son in 1999. She and Powers signed an acknowledgment of parentage and they raised the child together until they split in 2001.
After their split, Powers filed a custody action against Mazurek and they stipulated to joint legal and joint physical custody. After Mazurek moved out of Jackson, Michigan, where she, Powers, and the child had resided since the child’s birth, to live with her new fiancé in Shepherd, Michigan in 2004, Powers sought and was awarded sole custody .
Perhaps in response to Powers' custody challenge, Mazurek decided to see whether Sinicropi was,in fact,the child's father. DNA testing proved he was.
Mazurek then filed a motion to dismiss Powers’ custody action and to revoke the acknowledgment of parentage. The trial court, despite proof that Sinicropi was the biological father, refused to revoke the acknowledgment of parentage or to dismiss the custody action.
Eventually, the trial court scheduled a full evidentiary hearing on issues of custody and parenting time. Sinicropi then filed a paternity action. The trial court consolidated the paternity and custody cases and entered an order of filiation. This at this time, the child had two legal fathers.
By this time, the child was already 5 years old. Powers filed a motion to dismiss Sinicropi's case on the grounds that he lacked standing to file a paternity action. This was rejected.
Eventually, there was a best-interests evidentiary hearing on custody. The trial court awarded sole physical custody of the child to Powers, awarded Powers and Mazurek joint legal custody, and awarded Mazurek parenting time.
In response to postjudgment motions, the trial court eventually rejected parenting time for Sinicropi and ordered both Mazurek and Sinicropi to pay child support. Mazurek and Sinicropi appealed.
III. Sinicropi I:
In this first appeal, the COA held that the trial court erred by ruling that the child had two legally recognized fathers because an order of filiation in favor of Sinicropi could not enter until the acknowledgment of parentage had been revoked. The case was remanded to the trial court to consider whether the acknowledgment of parentage should be revoked.
The trial court was directed to address revocation solely under MCL722.1011(3), which requires, in part, that Mazurek prove by clear and convincing evidence that revocation of the acknowledgment of parentage is proper considering the equities of the case. The COA also directed the trial court, if it again rejected revocation, to pronounce Powers as the child’s legal father, vacate the order of filiation and any orders based thereon, including Sinicropi's child support order, and to let stand the custody determination as between Powers and Mazurek.
IV. On Remand:
Evidentiary hearings were held in September and October 2007. Mazurek was to present clear and convincing evidence to support her motion to revoke the acknowledgment of paternity. She presented evidence that two of Powers’ former students consumed alcohol at his home on at least one occasion, and that the child had established a good relationship with Sinicropi’s parents. Mazurek conceded, however, that the child and Powers have a significant and long-enduring bond; and that the removal of Powers from the child’s life would not benefit the child. Sinicropi testified that he spent time with the child on four occasions before the trial court entered a no-contact order. According to Sinicropi, Noah “knew that Sinicropi was his father."
Mazurek admitted that she permitted the child to develop a relationship with Sinicropi’s parents and his other family members despite the existence of an October 2005 court order prohibiting contact between Sinicropi and the child.
In Sinicropi’s view, the child’s best interests demanded the maintenance of a relationship with his biological father “[b]ecause he knows about me, because he’s 8, and because it’s the right thing.”
Powers presented the testimony of Dr. Janice Lazar, a psychologist who served as a court-appointed expert pursuant to the parties’ stipulation. Dr. Lazar interviewed and evaluated the parties and the child. She concluded that the child had a strong bond with both Mazurek and Powers, and opined that the termination of Noah’s relationship with Powers “would be quite harmful to that child.”
Dr. Lazar explained,that the child has been raised believing that Martin is his father in every sense of the word. To remove Martin from his life would be the same as removing any child’s parent that they are strongly bonded and attached to. That would be extremely harmful to any child.
Dr. Lazar testified that the child referred to Sinicropi as a “helper dad,” and was unsure of Sinicropi’s actual status. Dr. Lazar opined that the removal of Sinicropi from the child’s life would not harm the child.
The trial court issued its opinion from the bench, stating that if it granted Mazurek’s motion, “[the child] would lose the only father he’s ever known, and I don’t think that that represents the proper balancing of the equities in the case.” Relying primarily to Dr. Lazar’s testimony,the court denied Mazurek’s request to revoke the acknowledgment of parentage, finding that the child would endure harm by either the termination of his relationship with Powers or the introduction of another father. Mazurek and Sinicropi now appeal that decision.
V. Sinicropi v Mazurek II:
Mazurek and Sinicropi both contended that the trial court committed clear error when it balanced the equities against revocation of the acknowledgment of parentage. The gist of their arguments was that the evidence showed that the child had an on-going relationship with Sinicropi and his family members and that Mr. Powers had demonstrated poor judgment that has a direct impact on his ability to act as a
responsible parent to the child.
The COA found the following facts compelling to support the trial court's decision:
- Throughout the eight years of the child's life, the child knew no father besides Powers.
- Powers had sole physical custody of the child by court order issued in September 2005 upon a trial court finding that Powers had “shown an enormous [parenting] capacity for a single man” and consistently “put [the child] first."
The following evidence weighed against the equities favoring Sinicropi or Mazurek:
- The child had "only a short-lived, peripheral relationship with Sinicropi, despite some possible awareness that Sinicropi was his biological father.(There had been a no-contact order issued in 2005 so that Sinicropi was court-ordered not to see the child.)
- Dr. Lazar observed that the child presented as a happy and “extremely enthusiastic” child,and that he expressed an inability to think of “anything that he would change in his life at this time."
- The child was well-bonded to both Mazurek and Powers, was happy and doing well in school.
- Dr. Lazar's testimony that to remove Martin Powers from the child's life would be the same as removing any child’s parent that they are strongly bonded and attached to --it would be extremely harmful to any child
Despite Mazurek's and Sinicropi's argument that the trial court did not properly evaluate the evidence, the COA said that the T/C had given them "a virtually limitless opportunity" to present any and all evidence to support their claims and that they had failed to satisfy their burden to present clear and convincing evidence supporting revocation of the acknowledgment of parentage.
Cinicropi and Mazurek argued that the "equitable parenthood" doctrine was unfairly applied to this case. The court distinguished this case from Van v Zahorik 460 Mich 320; 597 NW2d 15 (1999). There Van's claim to "equitable parenthood" was rejected because the children he had raised as his own were born during a cohabitation relationship. In a public policy decision, the Michigan Supreme Court had refused in Van to extend the doctrine of euqiable parenthood because he had not married the mother.
While it is true that Powers and Mazurek never married, there is one important difference noted by the COA. Powers had executed an acknowledgment of parentage. That alone made him a "legal dad." Thus the doctrine of equitable parenthood doesn't even apply. Powers had an edge that Mr. Van lacked.
One interesting point made during oral argument caught the eye of the COA. Mazurek's and Sinicropi's counsel had argued orally to the court that MCL 722.1011(3) lacks any standards or guidelines that define "the equities." It was argued that this amounted to a denial of due process. The COA rejected this argument, stating that family division trial courts function all the time using a traditional equitable approach and that if the legislature had intended to make the analysis rigid, with a template, then it would have done so. [For example, see the template set out in the so-called 100-Mile Rule. MCL 722.31
At the end, the COA rejected the constitutional challenge of the "termination" of Sinicropi's parental rights, the COA made a statement that will likely be quoted many times:
"The due process principles discussed in Santosky v Kramer, derive from the liberty interests inherent in a parent’s already established custodial relationship with a child. The United States Supreme Court has specifically rejected the notion that biological parenthood standing alone, or even in conjunction with some additional relationship, suffices to establish a liberty interest." Michael H v Gerald D, 491 US 110, 123; 109 5 Ct 2333; 105 L Fd 2d 91(1989).
The COA ruled that because Sinicropi’s relationship to the child is biological, rather than parental, and otherwise wholly undeveloped, he has no constitutionally protected rights in the substance or procedures of the hearing conducted pursuant to MCL 722.1011(3).
You may an earlier Blog article about revocation of an acknowledgment of parentage here.